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Problem Gambling Helpline Calls in Pennsylvania Show Signs of Slowing

Written By Alex Weldon on March 18, 2024
Calls to the problem gambling helpline in Pennsylvania appear to be 'over the hump' and on the decline since the midway point of 2023.

Pennsylvania saw more people call for help with a gambling problem in 2023 than in previous years, but data from the latter half of the year suggests the crisis may be past its peak. The annual growth rate in referrals for help through 1-800-GAMBLER and other helplines has been declining since early 2022. In the second half of 2023, it dipped into the negatives for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic sent people to PA online casino sites.

Josh Ercole is the executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania (CCGP), which tracks and promotes the national helpline’s activities in the state. For the second year in a row, he provided PlayUSA with call data in advance of the CCGP’s annual report, which is now publicly available. It’s a busy time of year for the CCGP, as March is also Problem Gambling Awareness Month.

The data shows 17,970 calls to the helpline in 2023, up significantly from 14,146 in 2022 and similar to the 17,380 in 2021. However, many of those calls were hangups or from people misunderstanding the purpose of the hotline and calling for information about gambling products.

The more significant metric is the number of intakes, meaning people who called for help with a gambling problem and were directed to appropriate services by a helpline operator. That number for 2023 was 2,693 intakes, just a small rise from 2,621 in 2022.

The increase is larger if we include 515 people who received help by text message or online chat in 2023, up from 342 in 2022.

The month-by-month data reveals this wave of increased call and intake volume might have crested.

Helpline Calls Declining Since Q2 2023

Pennsylvania saw a huge spike in problem gambling helpline calls in early 2021, but the monthly number of intakes is now on the decline.
Data: CCGP / Graph: PlayUSA

Single-month intakes hit an all-time high last spring, with 279 in February and almost as many in March. Since then, however, the number has been falling. August, in particular, saw the lowest number of intakes since January 2022, at just 162.

The Q3 number of intakes was 8% less than the same period in 2022, and the Q4 drop was almost 13%. 

This trend hasn’t gone unnoticed by the CCGP. According to Ercole, it doesn’t reflect a national trend but is specific to his state. However, he urges caution when it comes to interpreting the decline.

Despite an overall higher total, we did begin to see a slight decline in the later part of the year, compared to last year. We were actually on pace to have a much higher total number of calls for the year, but rather surprisingly, during the last few months we saw a reduction in the number of calls. I say ‘surprisingly’ due to the fact that college and pro football were in the height of the season at that time.

I can’t say for sure what may be the cause for the decline – in discussing this with the Helpline Center, the reduction was not seen to be the same in other states, but rather specific to Pennsylvania. We have been monitoring this, and will continue to do so throughout the year. It could potentially be that we’re reaching a plateau… certainly when looking at things like the sports betting handle, that has not seen the same growth as it did a couple of years ago. Regardless, even if a plateau is what we’re seeing, our baseline numbers have risen dramatically compared to what we saw just a few years ago, so there is still room for significant concern.

Problem Gambling Calls Come in Waves

Pennsylvania retail gambling expansion produced a multi-year wave of problem gambling helpline intakes, and the trend has repeated itself with online gambling and sports betting.
Data: CCGP / Graph: PlayUSA

An eventual lull in calls and intakes was probably inevitable. In analyzing last year’s data, I pointed out the resemblance between the upswing in calls since the launch of sports betting and online casinos and the wave that followed the expansion of Pennsylvania retail gambling a decade earlier.

The drop in the second half of 2023 is, if anything, just a bit earlier than might have been expected. But the initial spike in 2020 and 2021 happened much more quickly than it had with retail casinos. A shorter-lived peak may be a side effect of that.

The nature of the internet is to make most things faster, so that might be a partial explanation. However, the arrival of COVID-19 in 2020 and the associated closure of retail casinos kicked the online gambling industry into overdrive.

Ercole explains the effect this had:

When online gambling first became available in summer 2019 we weren’t really expecting a dramatic increase right away. We expected that it was likely going to be more like a year-and-a-half or two-year progression for people to start developing problems and reaching out for help.

But then COVID really threw a wrench into what we were expecting. Everything that came along with it, all the emotional and behavioral issues people faced. People were out of work, scared, bored, and so on, and our expected timeline changed quite a bit.

The impact is dramatically apparent in monthly intakes. These dropped markedly when retail casinos first closed, only to see the year-over-year growth rate spike more than 250% one year later.

Calls Don’t Necessarily Reflect the Problem Gambling Rate

During last year’s discussion of rising intakes in 2022, Ercole said an increase isn’t necessarily all bad. Yes, it stands to reason that new forms of gambling mean more people gambling and more people experiencing problems. However, state regulations require operators to feature the helpline in their marketing.

So, new gambling might also mean increased awareness. The flip side is that a declining number of calls does not necessarily mean the problem gambling rate is falling.

Many gambling operators appear to have reduced their marketing budgets in 2023. If that means fewer ads on TV and online, there might be fewer people learning about the helpline.

However, Ercole says that messaging is going very well at the CCPG’s end. The council’s advertising budget has only had “small, incremental” increases, but a new online-focused strategy for using that budget has led to big gains in efficiency. His personal experience is that awareness of the helpline appears to be at an all-time high.

I would say a year and a half ago is when we had that ‘aha!’ moment, realizing that where we should be focusing our efforts is digital media and advertising. We can make a greater impact for what we pay for a targeted ad, or a boosted post, compared to other kinds of campaigns. If we look at the helpline report, we ask people how they heard of the helpline and the billboard numbers, for instance, are virtually non-existent.

I do presentations and it used to be that I would ask people: ‘Have you ever heard of 1-800-GAMBLER?’ And maybe a quarter of the room would say yes. Now, it’s the opposite. The majority of folks have at least heard of it. They might not know exactly what it is or how it works, but it’s at least something that’s becoming a bit more recognized.

Appropriate Helpline Use Remains High

One indicator of helpline awareness is the intake rate — that is, the number of calls resulting in the caller receiving help.

That dropped from an all-time high of 19.5% in 2022 to 17.9% in 2023. However, that’s still a substantial improvement over the rate before the state introduced legal online gambling. The average intake rate from 2007 to 2018 was 11.1%, hitting a low of 8.7% in 2014.

That increase in the internet gambling era is a key takeaway for Ercole.

I think the intake percentage statistic is really promising. Because even though that declined in 2023, it’s still much higher than it was and I’m hopeful that it doesn’t dip much more. Rather than people calling to ask ‘how do I get to this casino?’ or ‘what were the lottery draw numbers last night?’ our hope is for people to recognize it as a helpline and to call for information or to access resources.

Obviously, the national helpline now becoming 1-800-GAMBLER helps to increase that recognition. I think the more unified our services can become, the more recognizable they’ll become.

Ercole was pleased to note that Michigan, another legal iGaming state, had recently made the switch to the national number.

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